Review: Moonlight

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Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins, based on the story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monaé, Naomie Harris, André Holland

Summary: Told in three parts, Moonlight follows Chiron as he endures the growing pains of growing up gay in the Miami inner city.

Moonlight is a film full of painful and sometimes uncomfortable honesty, but it is beautifully told. When I walked out of the theater after seeing Moonlight the first time I realized, I’ve never seen this story told on screen before. Barry Jenkins made a film that speaks to life experiences that are rarely represented and I hope Moonlight serves as an example to other studios to invest in stories and filmmakers from all different backgrounds because there is a wealth of talented actors, writers and directors ready to speak truth to these stories.

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I was sold on Moonlight after the opening shot. The film starts by following Juan (Mahershala Ali) as he supervises a drug deal in a Miami neighborhood. It’s a long take where the camera circles and almost figure skates around Juan and the dealer. It’s a great open to the film. This exceptional photography is scattered throughout many scenes in the film: the scene early in the film when Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, the shots of Kevin tenderly preparing a meal for Chiron in the final third of the film…Moonlight, as a whole, looks beautiful. However, the cinematography provides more than just aesthetics; it generates a feeling. Most of the shots on Chiron are very tight, with highly selective focus and tend to linger on him a bit longer than you’d expect. It’s begging you to identify with this boy who feels incredibly alone. This tight focus throughout much of the film demonstrates that isolation in a very subtle but effective way.

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The casting for Moonlight was perfect. All three actors that played Chiron throughout his life were fantastic. I was shocked to find out that Barry Jenkins deliberately did not have the actors meet prior to shooting the film. Each character is clearly shaped by their experiences but they seem to have the same expressions, same gestures. All three of them capture the vulnerability and unique pain that comes from growing up feeling like an outsider.

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Mahershala Ali has a very important role as the surrogate father to Chiron, someone who steps in to make sure that he is cared for when his drug addicted mother cannot. He is a crucial guiding force in helping young Chiron understand the world around him and its clear that Chiron draws upon his time with Juan as he grows older.

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My favorite performance came from Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother. She is the only actor that appears in all three sections of the film and her transformation between each time period is remarkable (especially considering that all of her scenes were filmed in three days). She transforms from a semi-functional drug user to a devastating addict and finally a repentant, recovering addict who is finally able to recognize her failings as a mother. There is a scene between Chiron and his mother at a rehab facility in the third act of the film that just tore me apart. She apologizes for the childhood she stole from Chiron and recognizes that she failed him as a parent and the deep-rooted pain this causes them both is evident. It’s very emotional – it was the scene I felt like I needed in Manchester by the Sea; it was a relief to see two people speaking honestly even though the subject matter is excruciating.

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The writing is excellent, the editing is perfectly paced, the sound design is smart, the score is very effective…there’s a lot to praise in Moonlight. Mastering these technical elements is important but they are only effective when organized by a focused director with a clear vision of the film he wanted to make. Barry Jenkins shot Moonlight on one camera and with a very tight budget, but it doesn’t show. Moonlight is emotionally raw but also a visually polished, professional, beautiful piece of cinema. Essentially, he took a quartet and made them sound like an orchestra.

Final Verdict: A+
I could write another thousand words on Moonlight to discuss the thematic elements, the complexities of these characters, the uncomfortable truths it confronts about sexuality, the tenderness that Barry Jenkins takes in telling the story of this young man’s troubling upbringing…It’s a truly unique film and is brilliantly executed.


Oscar Considerations

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali
Best Supporting Actress, Naomie Harris
Best Director
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Score
Best Adapted Screenplay

It’s a shame that La La Land will probably sweep most of these categories. Not that La La Land doesn’t deserve it but Moonlight was a really, really special film. Mahershala Ali is favored to win Best Supporting Actor, but it’s not a guarantee. Moonlight has a shot at Best Score and is the designated runner-up for Best Picture (though it is unlikely that anything other than La La Land will win). I think Moonlight has the best opportunity to take home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay or maybe Best Director.

Won…
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali
Best Adapted Screenplay

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